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The Mystery Of Superstition

Our brains are designed to detect structure
and order in our environment, says Bruce
Hood at the University of Bristol, UK. We are
also causal determinists – we assume that
outcomes are caused by preceding events.
This combination of sensing patterns and
inferring causes leaves us wide open to
superstitious beliefs. “But there are very
good reasons why we have evolved these
capabilities,” Hood adds. Spotting and
responding to some uncertain cause-and-
effect relationships can be crucial for
Our ancestors would not have lasted long if
they had assumed that a rustle in the grass
was caused by wind when there was even
a small chance it was a lion. And it is worth
making false-positive mistakes to get these
relationships right. Kevin Foster of Harvard
University and Hanna Kokko from the
University of Helsinki, Finland, used
mathematical modelling to show that
whenever the cost of believing a
superstition is less than the cost of missing
a real life-or-death association,
superstitious beliefs will be favoured by

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